I declared at the outset of this series that the matter of justification is of essential importance because it concerns the eternal fate of souls. We've spent much time describing and analyzing the Reformed and Roman Catholic positions; we should now consider more fully why this issue matters. We will then be in a better place to determine which view accords best with God's Word.
We might begin with an analogy. All of us have fathers—even those who have never met them. There are probably few things more important for a father to tell a child than “I love you.” Now, imagine three young boys:
- The first has never heard the words, “I love you,” from his father.
- The second has often heard these words.
- The third has heard not only these words, but also a certain addition: “I will always love you.”
Which one of these three boys do you suspect feels most secure in his relationship with his father?
Now, we can never make a perfect analogy between human beings and God, but I submit to you that there are three kinds of spiritual children: 1) those who do not believe they have received God’s grace, 2) those who believe they have it at the moment, but are uncertain about the future, and 3) those who believe they have it now and always will.
There is no question in my mind that God’s love toward man is most clearly felt in the extension of His grace towards His elect. Those who experience this grace feel far more loved than those who do not, and this grace is necessary for sinful humans to have a relationship with their heavenly Father.
If the purpose of our lives is to know God, love Him, serve Him, and glorify Him, then who is in the best position to do so? There are two general theories:
Option A: Those who believe they could lose God’s grace will have better relationships with Him, because they will be more likely to follow His commandments.
Option B: Those who believe they will always have God’s grace will have better relationships with Him because they relate through gratitude rather than fear.
Scripture has much to say about persevering through the Christian life and following God’s commandments. Christ came to free us from sin itself as well as the consequences of sin. The way of the cross is the way of sanctification. All this I know most assuredly, but I also know what it is to stand before an Almighty God in full knowledge of my sinfulness, cognizant that however many times I repent and beg forgiveness, I am bound to fall into sin again. It is a fearsome thing to fall into the hands of a holy God.
“Be perfect,” the Lord says, “as I am perfect.”
Why is marital love between a man and woman superior to non-marital love between the same? Our present society often suggests that there is no difference. “We don’t need a legal document to prove that we love one another,” they say. But the Christian thinks about these things differently. Marriage is a sacred covenant in which two people pledge to love each other forever, come what may. Because they are both sinners, this necessitates grace and forgiveness. However, if two people are not married, they are not bound in the same way. They can, at a time of their choosing, end the romantic relationship without breaking any covenant. The bond is not “as long as we both shall live” but “as long as we both want to”.
In which relationship can one feel more assured?
So it is with Christ and His Church. Scripture calls the Church “the Bride of Christ”. Because the Church is full of sinners, this love relationship requires grace and forgiveness on the part of Christ. But is that grace and forgiveness guaranteed? Can those in Christ rely on His grace eternally, or are there bridges too far over which the Christian walks at eternal peril?
If there is any circumstance in which a Christian could lose the grace of God, that surely affects how we view our relationship with Him, in addition to how we view the nature of grace. When the Bible says we are to fear God, is that more in the sense of reverence or terror? Remember, we are talking about one’s eternal destiny. To be outside of God’s grace is to be outside of heaven. Not only that, but to lose His grace is to lose communion with the Creator. He has given us life, but how can we be sure that that life will remain?
“Do this and live,” says the Lord.
Yes, that was what He said under the Old Covenant, but what about the New Covenant? Is there something left to be done, or has it already been done for us?
This is the question we consider when we compare infusion and imputation. One says there is something left to be done, and the other denies it. Even if that “something left to be done” is accomplished by the power of God, if there is any possibility that it might not be done, we are left with uncertainy.
I am struck by the words of the Council of Trent:
“For as no pious person ought to doubt the mercy of God, the merit of Christ and the virtue and efficacy of the sacraments, so each one, when he considers himself and his own weakness and indisposition, may have fear and apprehension concerning his own grace, since no one can know with the certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God.”
Not by baptism can you know that you have God’s grace, nor by partaking of the Eucharist. Confession is no guarantee, nor is penance. Faith is not enough. If you were to surrender all your worldly goods and adopt a monastic life, living as a celibate anchorite in some forsaken corner of the world, beating your body to the point of bleeding, praying without ceasing, crying “Ave Maria!” day and night…not even then could you be certain unless some angel from heaven or perhaps the blessed Virgin herself appeared to you and by special revelation swore you were among the elect.
But what of the Reformed Christian? Yes, the Reformed have long held to the perseverance of the saints: That those who are truly elect will maintain their faith to the end and enter eternal life. What then of someone like Joshua Harris, that former member of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement? He held to the tenets of Calvinist soteriology, but then in a shocking development he declared that he had lost his faith and no longer considered himself a Christian. Here was a man who had preached the Gospel, boldly turning his back on Christ. The term for this is apostasy.
Catholics have no problem classifying Joshua Harris or explaining what happened to him. Yes, he may have been infused with grace, but he fell into mortal sin, causing that grace to depart from him. He is severed from Christ. He did not persevere to the end.
Those in Harris’ former ideological camp have had a harder time comprehending his rejection of Christ. Some appealed to the Apostle John’s statement that there are some who “went out from us, but they were not really of us”. (1 John 2:19) In other words, Harris was never truly united to Christ. Others found this hard to believe and concluded that he had simply fallen into sin for a time and would hopefully return to obedience one day.
The issue for our purpose is not whether Harris was/is/will be in Christ; it is the fact that Harris undoubtedly thought once upon a time that he was in Christ and assured of a place in heaven. In that assumption, it now seems possible that he was wrong. You see, even if you believe in the perseverance of the saints, you can doubt whether or not you are one of the saints in question. Assurance is no simple thing, yet there are certainly some positions that lend themselves to assurance more easily than others. This is why the Westminster Divines could write,
“Although hypocrites and other unregenerate men may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God, and estate of salvation (which hope of theirs shall perish): yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed.”
The Roman Catholic Church says we cannot be assured that we are in a state of grace, while the Reformed Protestant churches say we can be assured of this. Again, they cannot both be right. It is easy to see that if one is justified by the imputed righteousness of Christ, then while one’s sense of assurance may wax and wane, their destiny is not actually in flux. On the other hand, if justification is up to one’s own working toward righteousness—be it even empowered by the infused grace of God—things are rather more up in the air.
This is a point that I do not believe the Catholic Church would dispute. In my own experience, I have more often heard Catholics complain about those who have assurance and thus engage in all kinds of sin than heard them long for the assurance of grace upon grace.
Perhaps some need assurance more than others. Luther, for example, may have been a man for whom assurance ws paramount. He was not content to exist in a world of gray, but needed black and white certainty. He did not commit himself to anything halfway, and thus would hardly do so when it came to salvation. Luther himself wrote that before he became convinced of justification by faith alone, he would spend far more time in confession than the average monk, trying (as he felt) in vain to rid himself of sin and receive God’s grace once again.
Why did Luther suffer such a crisis of conscience when many of his fellow monks did not? Perhaps, as some have suggested, he had an anxiety disorder or a poor understanding of Catholic doctrine. Perhaps, as others have suggested, he was one of the few who truly understood the ramifications of Catholic teaching.
If it was not clear already, the Roman Catholic and Reformed Protestant views of justification remain sharply opposed. It is conceivably possible that both are wrong, but not that both are right; the only standard by which to judge is the very Word of God.
Does Scripture teach that we can have certainty of eternal life? Does God want us to have such certainty? These are the questions we will consider as this series draws to a close next time.
- "Infusion and Imputation: An Introduction"
- "Justification: The Roman Catholic View"
- "Justification: The Reformed Protestant View"
- "Justification: Are Catholics More Biblical?"
Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at www.amymantravadi.com or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.
Podcast: "Reformed Road Leads to Rome?"
"Francis Turretin on Justification" by Guy Waters
"Christian Assurance: Rome and Thomas Goodwin" by Ian Hamilton
Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification by Thomas Schreiner
 Reference to Matthew 5:48
 Reference to Deuteronomy 4:1
 Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 35.
 Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 18, Article 1. https://www.pcaac.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/WCFScriptureProofs.pdf. Accessed 8 June 2020.